Researchers at the University of Missouri and Dartmouth College released a study this week showing a correlation between teenagers viewing a lot of sex in movies and real life sexual risk-taking. Kids ages 12 to 14 who saw more sex scenes ended up having sex at younger ages, with more partners, and with fewer precautions, even controlling for factors like family, income and TV-viewing habits. The researchers naturally caution people not to make too much out of one study, but when it comes to opportunities to panic about both teenage sexuality and media consumption, making too much is the order of the day. It’s important to remember when looking at studies like this that, even when the findings are troubling, overall we’re seeing a decline in teenage pregnancies. The time to panic in the street is not now.
All that said, this study does suggest that movies can influence what young people think is normal, which in turn can influence their sexual choices. Of particular interest is the finding that teenagers who watched more sex scenes in movies were less likely to use condoms. Sadly, no surprise there. In the world of movies and TV, people seem to be having sex all the time, but they almost never talk about or are shown using contraception. Since so much of movie sex serves the plot, you get encounters that are much more spontaneous than they would be in real life, without any pause in the action to wrap it up. Young viewers could easily get the sense that the norm is to hop right in bed with someone without ever worrying about unintended pregnancy. And while unplanned pregnancies do occur on TV and in movies, they don’t occur as frequently as they would if no one was using protection in real life. No wonder 40 percent of people age 18 to 29 believe pregnancy is more a matter of fate than the logical outcome of having unprotected sex.
To be clear, particularly on a day when questions are being raised about tragic violence and movie violence, I don’t think that it’s the responsibility of moviemakers and TV directors to turn their stories into public service announcements about contraception. The responsibility of storytellers is to the story, not to public health. But sometimes the lack of contraception can actually hurt the story. Lost always drove me up the wall. Every time Kate slept with Sawyer, I would annoy my boyfriend by asking, “Gosh, what kind of weird island contraception are they using?” After all, it would be really bad to have an unitended pregnancy on any desert island, let alone a magic one that kills pregnant ladies. (Yes, I realize the show had many inconsistencies, but that was one of the most egregious!)
My colleague Alyssa Rosenberg has written before on how silly it is to think that you can’t work contraception into a movie or TV show. She offers Knocked Up as a great example of how it’s easier to do well than screenwriters seem to think. I’d add that Knocked Up isn’t just an example of how easy it is to incorporate condoms, but how it makes for a better movie. By having his characters try to do the right thing—even though they fail—Judd Apatow eliminated the problem of the audience spending half the movie annoyed at being asked to assume that the charcters didn’t even consider strapping one on for sex with a stranger. Contraception scenes are an economical way to humanize your characters, making them more relatable to the audience. If it has the side benefit of convincing teenagers that normal, sexy people actually do whip out the condom when having sex, then that’s just a bonus.